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South Africa’s land governing structures conduits for illicit self-enrichment?

30 March 2010

Below is a thought piece by Institute for Security Studies Senior Researcher Andile Sokomani. The ISS hosts a roundtable to debate the preliminary findings from Sokomani’s research paper tomorrow, at its offices in Cape Town. On 8 April, he will come to PLAAS to present a seminar and invite further discussion.

Source: Pambazuka News

If there is any lesson to be learned from South Africa’s land reform experience, since the dawn of democracy in 1994, it is the fact that the success of the country’s land reform programme is contingent upon a complex mix of diverse but interrelated factors. These encompass issues such as the existence of an adequate budget to implement the programme’s three main goals, namely the restitution of land to people who were dispossessed by the colonial and apartheid governments after 1913, redistribution of land in order to redress the skewed ownership patterns of land along racial lines, and tenure reform to secure the land rights of people whose tenure is insecure as a result of discriminatory laws and practices.  Building the technical capacity of land reform beneficiaries to ensure that restituted and redistributed land remains productive also constitutes an important dimension of success.

It is encouraging that government policy makers are largely taking note of these considerations and articulating them to the public via the media. There also seems to be an acute realisation that none of these conditions of land reform success can be met as long as the financial resources devoted to them are wasted through corruption. While much decried, this dead weight loss problem remains inadequately addressed possibly due to an insufficient understanding of its origin. The pressure to deliver on land reform targets may not have afforded adequate space for exploring the leakage in sufficient detail. What may have been overlooked as a result is the extent to which the institutional structures governing the land reform process contribute to the problem.

Let’s start with the Land Bank, which is entrusted with investing finances into the country’s agri-business sector with emphasis on bringing into the fold previously marginalised black farmers. The diversion of the bank’s agricultural development funds into the coffers of politically connected individuals has been a subject of extensive media coverage. Thankfully basic remedial measures have been instituted, including changing the bank’s dodgy leadership, placing the responsibilities for its oversight away from the problematic land affairs ministry to the relatively well-run ministry of finance, and recapitalisation of the bank as announced recently by finance minister Pravin Gordhan in his budget speech. However, as the Land Bank is only one among many beleaguered land reform structures, the net ought to be perhaps cast wider.

To be included in the broadened clean-up are community property associations (CPAs) and community trusts, the most common form in which the beneficiaries of land restitution and land redistribution hold land. These have proven to be a great conduit for the illicit self-enrichment of undemocratically appointed individuals who purport to be community representatives. Community trusts for instance invest property ownership in non-beneficiaries (the trustees) who are not democratically accountable to the beneficiaries. CPAs have been invented to counter this undemocratic tendency by placing emphasis on principles of fair and inclusive decision-making, equity of membership, democratic processes, fair access to property, accountability and transparency, security of tenure, sustainability and compliance with legislation and the Constitution.

As far as they save poor rural beneficiaries the costs associated with individual ownership, including conveyancing costs, fines for non-compliance with state-imposed land-use controls, and municipal land tax liabilities, CPAs would seem ideal for land reform projects. Unfortunately when it comes to transparency, accountability, definition of group membership, distribution of income generated from projects, land allocation and land use, CPAs continue to suffer many of the problems experienced by community trusts. The source of these problems may not be unrelated to how the CPA concept glosses over the fact that many of those who seek restitution had owned their properties on a freehold basis, but had not purchased them in ways that enshrined individual property rights. The popular perception of ‘African culture’ where land is presumably a jointly owned resource, to be used for the common good, is thus not exactly accurate. Consequently CPAs may not only need to be rid of unscrupulous elements. The communalist assumption on which they are founded may also need to be revised.

A variant of the community trust and CPA arrangement that also deserves highlighting is the practise of vesting ownership of restituted and redistributed land in tribal chiefs and kings who hold it in trust on behalf of their tribes or ‘subjects’. Founded on the assumption that it somehow corresponds to the historic principles of African tenure relationships, this mode of property ownership has also proven to be a major recipe for corruption with all the classic textbook examples associated with unilateral decision making and unfettered discretion. Taking into account the fact that the legitimacy of some chiefs is fiercely contested, and that in some cases chieftaincy was invented to aid colonial and apartheid machinations, the founding assumption of this traditionalist mode of tenure may not be fully supported by historical evidence. Like the CPA concept it may need a serious rethink. Otherwise it will continue to afford chiefs easy access to kickbacks in dodgy mining deals and tourism ventures.

A systematic review and clean-up of the institutional structures meant to advance land reform objectives may not be a panacea for the country’s land reform woes, but will certainly go a long way in preventing loss, wastage and abuse of much needed funds.

Sokomani is a Senior Researcher at the Institute for Security Studies’ Corruption and Governance Programme, Cape Town

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. 10 March 2012 3:23 am

    There are 2 forms of companies, the ones that work to charge more and those that work to charge less. I will be the 2nd.
    It’s not in the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or baker that people expect our dinner, but from other regard to their own interest.

  2. Knöcklein permalink
    1 June 2010 10:11 pm

    Thanks for the brief and publisising your honest findings. I share in the centiment and have experienced numerous such corruption in the course of my duties as a town planner.

    Keep up the research and feedback

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